World War II: Allied Sweep into Belgium-- (September 1944)

Figure 1.--Liberation brought out the largest celebrations in Belgian history. British troops reached Brussels to a joyous reception (September 3). Here more British troops move into the center of the city (September 4). Notice the American jeep. Neutrality was the centerpiece of Belgian policy since the country's creation (1830). After two German occupations, few Belgians were committed to neutrality after the war. Source: Imperial War Museum.

The Allies after Falaise and Paris pressed north rapidly toward Belgium. The Whernacht in France was broken. The Germans did not wait for retreat orders. Every Gernman in France just wanted to get back to the Reich however possible and as rapidly as possible. There are no important natural barriers between Beklgium and France. There are some important physucal barriers which can be used as defensive lines, including the Ghent and Albert Canals, the Ardennes Forrest, and Meuse River. The Germans did not like announcing the loss of cities. This combined with the rapid Allied advance meant that the Gernan garisons in Belgium were not prepared when the Allies reached the Belgisn frontier. After liberating northern France, the Allies led by the Canadians pushed into Belgium. Canadian troops were the first to cross the Belgian border (September 2). There was no organized German effort to block the Allied advance into Belgium. The major effort was to fortify the Scheldt Estaury and a failed attempt to blow up the harbor facilities in Antwerp. There was a limited effort to stand at the Ghent and Albert Canals, but the Germans did not have the forces to make a determined stand against the massive Allied armies sweeping into Belgium. Liberation thus in most Belgian towns and villages followed very rapidly. The major cities of Brussels and Antwerp were quickly liberated. The British reached Brussels (September 3) and Antwerp further north only a day earlier (September 4). The Allies were met by jubilant civilians realizing that the dark years of NAZIdom were finally over. One Belgian boy who was 7 years old at the time remembers the arrival of the Americans, "I can still see the American tanks, trucks and jeeps, each with the big star of the U.S. Army, rolling down the streets of my village. The bright young faces of the American soldiers smiled down at us. They threw chewing gum, Life Savers and chocolates. In return, we gave them whatever we found in our garden at the time. I remember handing them lots and lots of plums." [Henderson] The German resistance was highly variable. Some Belgian villages were vacated by the Germans when the Allied soldiers reached them. There were fire fights for other villages. Large parts of western Belgium were quickly liberated with the Germans marshalling their limited resistance in a few key places. There was a fight at the Ghent Canal and north of Antwerp. The German 15th Army retreated to the Sheldt Estuary and held out there. The rest ofthe German forces retreated north to the Nerherlands and east to the rugged Ardennes where the Fifth Panzer Army with few tanks attempted to regroup..

German Operations

The German 15th Army was the major German firce in Belgium. It had been activated (January 15, 1941 initially under the command of General Curt Haase. The units involved had seen action in the Western Offensive that defeated France. The 15th Army was a basically infantry firce. And with with Operation Sea Lion shelved was primarily concerned with coastal defense against a possible Allied cross-channel invasion. This was a remote possibility in 1941 and German resources were focused on Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). When Barbarossa faltered before Moscow (December 1941) and then German forces were shattered at Stalingrad (February 1943), the situation changed. With American in the War, an Allied cross-Channel invasion became a real possibility. And by 1944 the Allies had the resources needed to invade. The 15th Army was part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall defenses. It was not a highly mobile force given its Atlantic Wall mission of defending the coast. The 15th Army found itself facing a massive Allied force attacking overland from France and not an Allied landing. D-Day and then the stunning Allied sweep through northern France and Belgium achieved a major objective, the vital Belgian port of Antwerp. British armored spearheads captured Antwerp with minimal resistance from the reeeling Germans (September 4). The British armored thrust to the Scheldt/Schelde largely cut off the 15th Army. The Scheldt is a 350-km long river cutting across northern France, western Belgium, and the southwestern Netherlands. The 15th Army was still committed south of the Scheldt Estuary/Antwerp along the Channel Coast. The commander, General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen, found himself facing basically three options, they were constrained by the his lack of mobility and armor which the Allies had. First, they could try to fight their way out of Allied ecirclenment and attempt to join what was left of the German Heer in the west under the Fifth Panzer Army were retreating eastward toward the perceived safety of the West Wall. The West Wall defenses were weak, but the Allies were outrunning their logistical support. Von Zangen attempted this, but preliminary actions failed. He concluded that the British advance and developing wedge was already too strong to allow his force with limited armor and mobility to breakthrough. Thus he had to choose from the other two options. The second option was withdrawal westward to the Channel Coast where the fortified Channel ports well supplied as part of the Atlantic Wall plan which would make an extended defensive action possible. The third option was withdrawal northward to the banks of the Wester Scheldt and to Walcheren and Zuid-Beverland. This was a more difficult mnaneuver because it involved the demanding task of crossing the wide waters of the Scheldt Estuary, but it had the important military advantage of denying the Allies the use of the imporant Antwerp port, one of the major ports of northern Europe. The Allies were facing a logistics crisis and Antwerp could have suignificantlu alleviated it. And Antwerp could not be used as long as the 15th Army held the Scheldt approaches. In additon the isklanbds and swapy terraine in the estuary privided excellent defensive positions for his basically imombile force.. Von Zangen chose the Schedldt option and OKW authorized it. Fiekd Marshall Montgomery's focus was moving toward the Rhine which enable the 15th Army to croiss the Schedlt and move into the Estuary. The crossing met little resistance from Allied air forces. At the time, 15th Army was not entirely cut off given the still fluid situation. Von Zangen and his 15th Army was, however, effectively isolated from the retreatung German armies in the West. Soon Allied advances did completely cut them off. And after moving into the Scheldt Estuary they basicalkly lost the limited mobility that they had. This doomed the 15th Army, but it achieved the purpose of denying the Allies usr of the Antwerp port for several months.

Western Belgium

Brussels (September 3)

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and located roughly in the center of the country. The British Second Army liberated Brussels (September 3), the day after Canadian troops first crossed into the country. The Welsh Guards were the first to enter the city. A British soldiers pressing the Germans sometines only 10 hours behind describes the experiences of thousands of Allied soldiers in a letter home to his sister, "You have no doubt read and heard all about the sensational advance of the Guards Armoured Division, culminating in its liberation of Brussels. We travelled across France, North of Paris, across the Seine, through Arras and the battlefields of the last war, over the Somme and across the border into Belgium — 430 miles in less than six days. It must have been the greatest advance in history. It was very, very interesting and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. During the whole journey, we had little opposition, for the German army was in full retreat. It took us all our time to keep up with them. When we left Normandy, we were told that our objective was across the Seine. We went across on a pontoon bridge, for the RAF had blown all the permanent structures. Once over we soon captured the first flying bomb sights. I took the message over the wireless and you can imagine the excitement it caused. This was our first real triumph V. [Note "V' was his sister Vera to whom he was writing.] We drove on, liberating town after town, village after village, and we were madly cheered on our way. Some of the places we went through had been occupied by the Germans less than ten hours ago. The excitement was intense! The journey across the battlefields of 1914-18 ..... We continued, riding right through the long days, stopping only a few hours each night for refuelling and a bit of sleep. The pace was terrific, V and all the time we were heading for the Belgium border. Then on Saturday night, we were told that early next morning, we would be setting out for Brussels. What an objective, for it was 90 miles away! It seemed impossible that we would ever make it, for if we did, we would achieve the distinction of advancing faster in one day than any other formation before us. We set out early and we were soon being cheered on our way, some people even waving to us in their pyjamas and nightshirts. It was amazing! But the most amazing part was yet to come when we crossed the border in Belgium. The French people were glad to see us but the Belgians went mad. Their villages and towns were gaily festooned with flags, Belgian and Allied, and the streets were a mass of colour. Before we had gone many miles, our vehicles were covered with flowers and every time we halted, we had fruit and wine showered on us. We looked like flying greengrocer’s shops. From early morning till we arrived I ate, ate, ate cakes and biscuits, fruit and wine. My god how hysterically crazy and excited were these people to see us. Across the roads were banners, “Welcome to our Allies,” etc. and bands played in the path of this advancing army. On and on we drove towards Brussels, the excitement getting more intense every hour. The people were getting frantic! The route was a blaze of colour and my arm fair ached with waving to the excited crowds. At times it was almost impossible to move through the seething masses, for they climbed on to the trucks kissing us and crying. These people had been four years beneath the Nazi yoke, suffering, unhappy and now they were free. The Allies had fulfilled their promise. Liberation was theirs. And then we entered the suburbs of the capital! Our Brigade was the first formation to go in. Well V I don’t know how to describe it. It is almost impossible for I can never put into words the reception that greeted us. To put it mildly, it was stupendously terrific. The city went raving mad. Bands, screams, singing, crying, all these sounds rent the air. It was the proudest moment of my life. We had brought freedom and happiness to these good people. As we progressed further in the crowds began to get out of hand for they climbed into the trucks, on the tops kissing and hugging everyone. The vehicles were absolutely covered with flags and streamers. It was the most amazing sight! As we neared the centre of the city, progress got very slow for the crowds were blocking the roads. The whole of Brussels had come out to welcome us. It took us over three hours to get from the suburbs to the Centre. We entered the town at 8.00 pm and we parked at about 11.00 pm. It got dark but lights were blazing in the cafes, the noise got even louder as radios blared out their greetings. Eventually we reached our destination. There was a red glow surrounding the centre of the city, for the Germans had set fire to the tremendous magnificent Palace of Justice. It was a blazing inferno! The red ominous glow was the Germans' welcome to us. High up in buildings we could hear the occasional crack of rifles. Snipers! The enemy was still with us. And now came the most amazing sight of all V. In the cellars of the Palace of Justice, had been stored by the Germans, thousands and thousands of bottles of wine and champagne. They were all brought up into the streets and Brussels fairly swam in wine. The celebration was tremendous. ...." [Clarke] One Belgian boy who was 7 years old at the time remembers the arrival of the Americans, "I can still see the American tanks, trucks and jeeps, each with the big star of the U.S. Army, rolling down the streets of my village. The bright young faces of the American soldiers smiled down at us. They threw chewing gum, Life Savers and chocolates. In return, we gave them whatever we found in our garden at the time. I remember handing them lots and lots of plums." [Henderson] Just after liberation, people in the Marolles district staged a mock funeral for Hitler. The Americans liberated the area south of Brussels.

Tournai (September 3)

Tournai is a beautiful medieval site. It was part of the booming textile industry in the Low Countries. Tournai is located in the Wallonia region of Belgium, at the southern limit of the Flemish plain, in the Schedldt Basin. It is close to the French border in western Belgium. It was badly damaged by the Germans in 1940. The American First Army liberated Tournai with little resisrance from the Germans (September 3).

Antwerp (September 4)

Antwerp is located just north of Brussels near the Dutch border. It took the British Second Army only one day to get to Antwerp after Brussels. The Resistance participated in the liberarion. [Chen] Antwerp was not just one more liberated European city. It was vital for the Allied plan to end the war. Antwerp was one of the important North Sea ports. Ports in northern France west of Cherbourg were either still under Axis control, very small, or had been destroyed by the Germans. There was hope in the Allied camp that with the German collapse in France that the NAZIs could be defeated in 1944 before Christmas. Antwep as the sollution to the Allied logistical problem. was the key to the Allied thrust on into Germany. The Allies badly needed a deep-water port in Belgium or northern France. Supplies were still being landed in Normandy and trucked through France via the Red Ball Express. Trucks were being used as the French rail system had been virtually destroyed. And trucks were much less efficent than trucks. This was creating enormous logistical problems and the Allies needed to shorten its supply lines. With Antwerp the Allies would be able to land supplies close to the fron line combat forces, avoilding the delays and huge logistical train from Normandy. While the Allies after taking Brussels (September 3) reached Antwerp the next day (September 4). The port of Antwerp was liberated by the British 11th Armoured Division. Getting the port operating proved to be a much more difficult undertaking. The major problem was that rather unusually for an imprtant deep-water port, Antwer was 50 miles inland. Ships had to pass through the Scheldt Estuary which was still in German hands. The Belgian Resistance prevented the Germans from blowing up the port, but Montgomery was focused on the Netherlands and Market Garden and failed to appreciate the importance of the Scheldt Estuary.

Ghent (September 6-10)

Ghent is an important medieval city in noirthwestern Belgium. It is in the Flemish region of Belgium, located at the confluence Rivers Scheldt and Lys. As rivers were the major transport routes, the location helped to make it the largest and richest city in northern Europe during the medieval era. The British 7th Desert Rats Armoured Division reached Ghent (September 6). One Belgian remembers, "The first British tanks rolled into the city on the tenth of September 1944. The city was ready for the victorious arrival of our liberators and they received a tumultuous welcome. Everywhere flags were flying. They were hoisted on public buildings and draped along every house front. Everyone was overjoyed, there was cheering and shouting. 'Welcome Tommy'. The British soldiers were overwhelmed with armfulls of flowers and offers of beer and wine. Many citizens had saved a bottle or two for this very occasion. Children and adults alike clambered on top of the tanks and festooned them with flags and flowers to ride in triumph through the town with the celebrated troops. We begged the soldiers for their autographs. I had one of my own snapshots signed 'Robert Taylor'. [Key] The Germans put up a fight north of the city along the Ghent–Terneuzen/Sea Canal. The Canal linked Ghent to the Dutch port of Terneuzen on the Westerschelde (Scheldt) estuary. The fight was intense and it was the Canadians toughest fight in Belgium. Worse was to come in the Scheldt Estuary but that was partially iun the Netherlands ( northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands).

Ostend (September 8)

Ostend was occupied by German forces and used as a naval base durung World War I. German U-boats and small craft were based at the port. As a result, it was shelled by the Royal Navy. The loss of Ostend in 1940 had forced the BEF to fall bacn on Dunkirk and stage the evacuation there even though port faciities were minimal compared to Ostend. The Germans did not base U-boats in Ostend during World War II because they had access to French ports and the open Atlantic. Ostend was part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall defenses, but they were oriented toward stopping a landing, not to oppose a land advance from the south. The Canadians moving north along the coast liberated Ostend (September 8). They encountered only limited German opposition. The 15th Army commander Von Zangen had decided not to defendthe Channel ports, but to move into the Scheldt Estuary.

Aalst (August 18)

Aalst is a town in north-central Belgium, a Flemish area of Belgium. Aalst and other Belgium towns and cities began to industrislize (mid-19th century). This led to a political movement led by Father Adolf Daens and his Christene Volkspartij. They emerged as a strong local defender of workers' rights. This was in response to to the Papal bull, Rerum novarum, which recognized worker rights. Daens felt that the Pope did not go enough and esentially created a Catholic splinter movement". [Cook, p. 89.] Fascist thought gained some support during the inter-war era. The Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Front) achieved some support. Aalst, along with Brussels and Antwerp were the strongest supporters for Fascist thought, although a minority. [Clough, p. 124.] The Germans tended to favor the Flemish during both World Wars. On the second day of Operation Market Garden (September 18), a column of the British Guards Armoured rolled into the southern outskirts of Aalst. Commanded by Col. Joe Vandeleur, the British tanks encountered what was left of the German troops. They were dug in but heavily-damaged by an Allied air raid and artillery shelling (September 17). The Germans tried to hold Aalst to disrupt the Allied advance northeast toward Antwerp and the Netherlands. For the Allies, Aalsy was an importsnt crossroads needed to keep the columns of armour moving was to relieve the the Allied airborn troops which were seizung bridges in the Netherlands as part of Market Garden.

Eastern Belgium (September 5-10)

The Allies first swept into western Belgium, but it took only a few more days to reach eastern Belgium. The American 3rd Army crossed the Meuse River (September 5). The Meuse had been the river the Germann armies striking out of the Ardenbnes to the south had crossed (May 1940), leading to the fall of France. Now the Allies were moving in the opposite direction. The British entered Ghent to the east on the same day. The next major goal was the Albert Canal. This Canal is located in northeastern Belgium, named after King Albert I of Belgium. It connected the major cities Antwerp and Liège with the Meuse and Scheldt Rivers and the Canal Dessel-Turnhout-Schoten. The Canal was dug (1930s). It was used for the first time (1940), but was important as part of the Belgian defense plan. It was seen as a defensive line not only for northeastern Belgium, but also northeastern coastal areas of France. The canal locks could be used to control the water level. The crossing of the canal and the destruction of the Fort Eben-Emael by the Germans on the second day of their Western offensive was a critical German victory (May 11). It was potentially a defensive line the Germans could useagainst the Allies in 1944, but they did not have adequate forces to man it. The Second Canadian Division forged a bridgehead across the canal. The British 11th Armored Division also crossed the Canal (September 7). The next day the American First Army captured Liége (September 8). Advanced Allied patrols in eastern Belgium crossed the German frontier near Achen (September 10). The Germans to the north continued to hold in the Ardennes. Small areas in the far east of the country remained occupied until the reduction of the Bulge pocket (early-1945).

Dutch Border (September 11)

The Scottish 15 Division pushing north from Antwerp, crossed the Dutch frontier (September 11). By this time most of Belgium except for isolasted pockers in the Scheldt Estuary and small areas in the Ardennes along the German border were in Allied hands. North of Antwerp in the Netherlands, German resistance began to stiffen. Within days the Allies launched Market Garden.


Chen, C. Peter. "Liberation of Belgium: 2 Sep 1944 – 2 Nov 1944".

Clarke, Frank William. Letter to his sister Vera (September 7, 1944). WW2 People's War (BBC).

Clough, Shepard B. "IX: The Flemish Movement" in In Goris, Jan-Albert Goris. Belgium. The United Nations (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1946).

Cook, Bernard A. (2004). Belgium: A History. Studies in Modern European History. 50 (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 2004).

Henderson, Françoise. "An invitation to Gen. Bradley," The Washington Post (May 28, 2004), p. W11.

Key, Frank. "Ghent in wartime," (October 20, 2010).


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Created: 4:29 AM 6/28/2013
Last updated: 11:42 AM 4/30/2018